More than 640 Czech and Slovak Gypsies have arrived at Heathrow this month seeking asylum after alleging they have been attacked by skinheads.
Last night about 60 Slovakians who arrived during the evening were bedded down on couches in Terminal Two. A legal representative for some of them said that the Refugee Arrivals Project was unable to cope. He thought that many of the Gypsies were coming in now to beat stricter immigration controls.
The influx reached a peak two days ago when 105 people arrived at Terminal Two on flights from Prague. The group, 31 heads of family and 74 women and children, were given temporary permission to enter Britain.
Others who arrived earlier this month also immediately claimed asylum and were given temporary leave to remain while their claims for refugee status were investigated. The Immigration Service is bracing itself for the arrival of hundreds more asylum seekers from the former Czechoslovakia with most coming from Slovakia. Neither Czechs nor Slovaks need visas for Britain.
Most of the asylum seekers are poorly dressed but sources at the airport say they are not destitute. It is understood that many of them say that they have fled after being attacked by skinheads and that the police are not protecting them.
The sudden upsurge of Slovak and Czech asylum seekers has put enormous pressure on the immigration authorities and the backlog is now so big that some of the new arrivals will not be re-interviewed until November.
Most of the immigrants have travelled on one of the two daily Czech Airline flights from Prague. They have paid either an advance purchase fare of Ł280 return or Ł348 single and have little or no money when they land.
A Home Office spokesman said that 581 of those who had arrived this month had been interviewed and given temporary leave to enter the country pending a full investigation.
Some had friends and relatives here but most were found temporary accommodation in bed and breakfast hotels or in local social service accommodation. As they all applied for asylum immediately on arrival, the refugee seekers are entitled to a full range of social security benefits.
A Home Office spokesman said that there was no obvious reason for the sudden influx but some officials think it might be linked to the publication at the end of last month of the Government's plans to tighten the asylum procedures. Among the proposals was that asylum seekers would no longer have benefits and would be forced to take housing anywhere in the country.
A spokesman at the Slovak Embassy in London said that many of those arriving had left Slovakia for Prague seeking a better life and were now "fleeing here".
In 1997 a sudden influx of Czech and Slovak Gypsies arriving at Dover led the Government to give a warning that Britain was not a soft touch for those without a legitimate reason for asylum. Mike O'Brien, the Immigration Minister, gave interviews on Czech and Slovak radio and television in an attempt to stop Gypsies travelling to Britain.
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, told the Czech Republic last year to improve the position of its 300,000 Gypsies and warned that asylum seekers would not be offered homes in Britain.
The estimated population of England and Wales a year ago was 52.2 million, up 201,000 on the year before. The increase included 92,000 more births than deaths, 60,000 immigrants and 41,000 asylum seekers.
14. Sep 1998 at 0:00 | Richard Ford, for The Times